Quirimbas Mainland

Today, I’m writing this blog on a blissfully cloudy day. It has quite literally been months since I’ve seen a substantial cloud in the sky, let alone a drop of rain. We were all hoping the rain might come today, providing a bit of relief to the dry, dusty and often on-fire landscape but, it seems we will have to wait a bit longer. The rains are not expected for another month – perhaps longer, if climate change has anything to say about it.

Anyway. Charlie’s visit. Our first order of business was to find Charlie an elephant. We had heard about an old Portuguese colonial house that was bought by a German count and partially refurbished in an effort to spark local tourism, community development and conservation. This house was on the mainland of the Quirimbas National Park which allegedly boasts quite a diverse population of wildlife which is seldom visited by tourists. This place was a mission to find. The only park map was found on a chalkboard at the half-hearted ranger station. There is no sign posting anywhere, and so our best chance at finding this place was to ping pong ourselves from village to village asking if anyone knew where Mareja Lodge was. Too often, we received a flat no. After circling the park for 2 days – and picking up a bow and arrow for good measure – we finally began to reach people who knew vaguely of where this place was. Of course at this point it was a Sunday – the continent’s party day – and many of those who could provide us directions were wasted, to put it politely.

Against seemingly all odds, we did find the lodge. Jutting out over a cliff that provided spectacular views of not only the National Park but also the Indian Ocean on a clear day, it all felt worth it. Unfortunately, there was no drinking water – only tonic water. Prior to Charlie’s arrival, I promised him we would always travel with more than enough water for all our needs. By the time we reached the lodge, we were completely out and planned to stay for a few days. Charlie quickly perfected a water boiling system that gave us slightly smoked water, and allowed us to survive. The Gin and Tonics also helped.

For the next week, we were out at 4am and 4pm to search for wildlife as they woke up and went to bed. Between those hours the sun was simply too strong to be anywhere other than the shade, unless you were a baboon trapped in an eternal war with Josa. Happily, I took a rest from 50 Shades to plow through And the Mountains Echoed. During the reasonable hours, local rangers would lead us around to tiny sources of water that survive the dry season and fuel likely all the resident wildlife. We saw paw prints of all sizes, hooves ranging from duiker up to elephant, remains of fresh kills and no end of poo near these holes. At night from our Gin and Tonic porch, we could hear lions roar and hyenas howl as bush babies scampered from tree to tree.  In spite of all those signs, we were lucky to see anything more than a tail, an animal in the distance or, sadly, a poached carcass.

And this brings us to poaching… Earlier this year, Mozambique lost their final rhino. This rhino was killed in the South, where anti-poaching units are slightly more active due to the shared border with Kruger in SA. In the North, National Parks feel forgotten. Entering the Quirimbas National Park, there is no formal gate. In a country that collects money for everything, nobody stops to take a park entry fee. In some kind of sad irony, it feels like there are actually more people living inside the park than there are outside. This place could be stunning; the park literally jets out onto an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It could offer the ultimate bush-beach vacation. But, it is near impossible to actually spy an animal.

On one of our elephant stakeouts, our ranger took us up to a massive elephant carcass – the closest we got to seeing an actual elephant. He excitedly told us that the tusks from this elephant went up to his shoulder, and pointed to where the poachers had sawed them off in February.  You can sell an average sized tusk to Asian exporters for roughly $200, before they ship it off to sell it as a natural Viagra. With the rapid growth of cash economies here, this is big money.

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Other animals – impala, duikers, and kudu – are sold as bush meat. Within the park, residents are permitted to hunt certain animals for consumption. Allegedly, this is monitored. That being said – last week we were pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt on a tiny dirt road in the park. While the police issued Bryce a ticket, they simultaneously observed the sale of a skinned duiker right beside them. The police were unperturbed. Insult to injury for Bryce.

This all ends with animals becoming nocturnal and avoiding humans as best they can. While fascinating, it’s not much to offer tourists when in South Africa, the wildlife practically jumps your truck. But I suppose, with oil, the incentive for tourism development is shot. In Ethiopia we had met some wonderful Canadians that have spent the last 20-ish years in Lagos. They tiredly spoke of how, with oil, their government has absolutely no incentive to cater to their population or, any industry aside from oil. Nothing will compare to these fast and quick revenues. Depressing. For all the good that a socially and environmentally minded lodge could do in the Quirimbas mainland, it feels like it will be a perpetual uphill battle. In South Africa anti-poaching is a top government priority, with ex-special ops and drones being integrated into innovative initiatives. They still suffer a growing number of rhino deaths each year. Up here, I fear the parks stand a very small chance. The scorpions however, are thriving. Charlie had the pleasure of finding a tiny one under his pillow in the tent. In scorpion land, the smaller the critter the more poison they pack. We all slept a little less soundly after that.

For the time being, it still is a wonderful place. The partially restored colonial house is a tiny museum in and of itself. The staff are lovely. The rangers, I hope, were doing their best. As a ranger showed us a plant that provided drinking water in the dry season, I was reminded of everything else that makes up a safari. Still though – I wanted to find that elephant.

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Pemba, and the oil

The city of Pemba has become our new base between adventures. It has also become the base for the rapidly developing oil industry. This town, described in the 2007 Moz Lonley Planet as a “sleepy beach town”, is now full with men that now look somewhat like my dad. Stores catering to oil and oil associates are cropping up everywhere. Roadsides are littered with English advertisements for “easy, safe and convenient” business parks – high selling adjectives up here. Fairly fabulous furniture, appliance and grocery stores are opening up between the tiny convenience stores and shops seemingly each day. We initially thought we’d rent a quiet house on the beach where we could nest for a while – but, those dreams were squashed upon hearing that oil companies now pay upwards of USD 3000 a month for the envisioned cabin. The town, as any resident remarks, is changing rapidly.

Instead, we’ve set up camp in Pemba Bay at the Dive and Bush Camp. Given that this place is South African owned, the camping facilities are near flawless – quite a step up from the side of the road. All meat – most things, for that matter – are imported from South Africa making for some delicious meals (with bacon and feta!). Inevitably, however, this stunts the emergence of local markets that could cater to tourism and oil. Local industry seems to be capped at providing low level labour and an unending stream of tomatoes. The stage seems to be far from set for a balanced end to this oil discovery. But, more on that later.

Pemba remains for the time being, a stunning town. It is located on a peninsula in the Indian Ocean with the 3rd largest bay in the world to the left, and the calm Indian ocean to the left. The water is, on the worst of days, turquoise. The sea is dotted with dhows and canoes heaving massive tuna out of the sea, while the shore is packed full of women harvesting the tidal pools (to within an inch of their lives). I spent a spectacular birthday here learning how to scuba dive (thank you Bryce) with the world’s most laid back instructor. I feel like a tool for having hesitated this long to try it. On my birthday dive, we lucked out. Not only did two turtles swim past the coral wall but, and as we surfaced, a mama and baby humpback swam by while the baby practiced his jumps.  And, all that was done with Charlie Witzel in a wetsuit right beside me! When we weren’t diving, we were able to take kayaks through the mangroves to hunt for crabs and fish while Josa literally jumps between kayaks as we paddle around. She’s becoming a real sea pup.

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Of course, all this feels bittersweet. Our kayaking spot will be turned into a new port next year, and oil tankers will cruise over the dive spots. Baby whales will likely learn to jump elsewhere. One night over drinks, we overheard three perfectly stereotypical Texans discuss where they would build the storage area for the new port on the lodge’s property. Between that and picking up 50 Shades of Grey as the only book available to read here, all that is beautiful and Mozambican feels like it is fading fast. Literally everyone tells us to ditch the idea of tourism and build a “easy, safe, and convenient” hotel that would cater to oil companies. Hardly my vision of living in Africa… But perhaps my vision is too romantic.

Shame.

Anyway. From here, we set off with Charlie to explore the Quirimbas National Park. More on that next.